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America’s Elder(ly) Statesmen

June 18, 2021 – They were part of a generational era that marched for civil rights, worried about the fate of the environment, denounced the “establishment” and embraced the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Now, those elder and elderly statesmen are way on the other side of 30, and this time, it’s the modern day civil rights and climate change activists who are saying – generally in euphemistic terms – can you just retire already so we can replace you with someone younger and more in touch with us?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 81, has heard it – and has bluntly shot down suggestions that she step aside for a younger model, noting bluntly that the Capitol Hill press corps doesn’t pose the same question to older men, including 79-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. President Joe Biden’s inartful utterances – hardly a recent phenomenon in his nearly half century in national politics – frequently spurs speculation that the 78-year-old is suffering from dementia or other age-related impairment.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has raised concerns from fellow Democrats that she has lost a step at the age of 87. Her irascible colleague, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is the same age and is the target of snippy taunts on social media if his tweets are less than clear and grammatically pristine.

And Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, is under immense pressure to announce his retirement as the high court winds up its session this summer – not because of any perceived worries about his mental acuity but because liberals want to install a replacement while they still can.

“When discussing the future of American democracy (whatever that means anymore), age is much more than just a number – the Democratic establishment made it that way,” said an op-ed in the January issue of Teen Vogue that bemoaned the lack of younger people in congressional leadership and the Oval Office. “They’ve relied on the youth vote without representing young voters’ concerns, but that’s a trick that won’t work much longer. It’s time to hear us out. It’s time to give us a turn. It’s time for real renewal.”

Generational tension is nothing new. It’s perpetually frustrating for younger workers or would-be leaders to wait out their chance for higher positions. What’s relatively new, however, is that there are now four generations in the workforce, notes Jay Meschke, president of the business consultancy CBIZ Talent and Compensation Solutions, making the line of succession move a bit slower.

“The boomers were going to start retiring back in late 2009, and they couldn’t, because their 401(k)s went to hell in a handbasket,” Meschke says. They are starting to retire now, but many leaders – whether in politics or private industry – are resisting the push to go, he says.

Younger entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg may command media attention, but the average age of CEOs is steadily rising – from 45.9 years old in 2005 to 54.1 in 2018, according to Statistics Research Department. The Rolling Stones – which came of age during the youth-driven era of the ’60s and early ’70s, are planning a 60th anniversary tour next year.

People in all arenas are working longer, and it’s not just because their 401(k)s took a big hit during the Great Recession.

“The older people are working. They’ve found a job they like and they’re working because they want to work,” says Josh Bersin, a corporate human resources consultant and speaker.

That is especially true when it comes to politics. Younger members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 31-year-old New York Democrat, Sen. Jon Ossoff, 34-year-old Georgia Democrat, and Josh Hawley, 41-year-old Missouri Republican, might make headlines, but the average age of members of both chambers is on the rise.

In the House, the average age of members has increased steadily since the late 1970s, reaching 58.4 years for the current Congress. The same is true in the Senate, where the average age of members is 64.3 years – just months shy of what was once the widely accepted retirement age of 65.

Age doesn’t appear to have slowed down many of the lawmakers, physically or politically. A quick click-around of early morning cable news shows finds 70- and 80-something lawmakers, already suited up and at the Capitol, opining about the issues of the day. Longtime Hill denizens remember the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, then 92, showing up to the Capitol at the crack of dawn, during a snowstorm, to cast critical votes on the Affordable Care Act.

Those who cater to young voters also avert the pressure to leave, experts note. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 79, was popular among young voters in the 2020 Democratic primary (young voters were less enthusiastic about the slightly younger Biden until he got the nomination, polling shows). And Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, now 74, fended off a Democratic primary challenge from promising young former Rep. Joe Kennedy last year. That was in large part because Markey, who was first elected to the state legislature at the age of 26 and to the House at 29, is a prominent voice on climate change, a key issue for young voters, notes Alan Solomont, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

But partisan pressures are making activists more antsy about moving out the older public officials. Remarks about Grassley’s age tend to come from Democrats and liberals who hope the party would have a shot at the popular, seven-term lawmaker’s seat even as Grassley himself said earlier this year he is considering running for reelection in 2022.

Feinstein, meanwhile, is getting pressure from fellow Democrats and liberals – in part because some are worried she is less sharp than she once was and in part because progressives are growing annoyed with her (consistent) centrism. Fenstein was lambasted by the left for example, for giving a hug to her longtime GOP colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer says the senator fully intends to serve out her term. A typical day, he noted when asked about it, starts early with meetings, continues with hearings, briefings, phone calls and markups, and can last late until the evening or until the wee hours of the morning when there are long vote series. She has not missed any votes this session, according to the investigative news site ProPublica.

Far less muted are the calls for Breyer to retire – and nor are those advocates being shy about their intentions. Breyer is a critical swing vote in a majority-conservative court, and Democrats and liberals fear that if the justice does not leave before the 2024 elections (or even the 2022 elections, should the GOP take control of the Senate), Biden will not be able to replace him.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, fears a repeat of the Ruth Bader Ginsberg situation, wherein the liberal jurist remained on the court until her death at 87 – allowing former President Donald Trump to appoint the now 49-year-old conservaive, Amy Coney Barrett, to replace her.

“In March of 2014, I wrote an op-ed in The LA Times encouraging Justice Ginsburg to retire that summer, saying we can’t know what will happen in 2016. That was a great understatement,” Chemerinsky says, adding that she responded quite negatively to that suggestion.”

“I would hope that Breyer would retire” so Biden could replace him with someone “with the same values,” Chemerinsky says, noting that Senate Republcian Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has already insinuated that the Senate would thwart a Biden Supreme Court appointee if Republicans reclaim control of the chamber.

Breyer has “such a strong view about politicization of the court,” and so might “be resisting retiring” for that reason, says legal scholar Richard Hasen, who has written an op-ed encouraging Breyer to step down at the end of the term.

But “if Justice Breyer delays, and the (Senate) seat flips, or Justice Breyer has to leave the court for health reasons, things could be more polarized,” adds Hasen, who teaches law and political science at the Irvine school.

For the moment, Washington’s senior set is hanging around. Pelosi, who has previously indicated this would be her last term as speaker, hasn’t shut the door yet for another run. Biden says he’s planning on running for reelection in 2024. Democratic House Majority Whip James Clyburn, 80, asked by his hometown newspaper in South Carolina if he’d run again in 2022, said, “Not just yes, but hell yes.”

“We all have egos. We don’t want to be told that we’re irrelevant,” Meschke says. Until, anyway, the voters make the decision for them.

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